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Far East Kingdoms

China

 

 

 

China

Modern China has not always existed in its present form since its first appearance as a state. In fact it has rarely been as large in terms of territory as it is today. At several times in its long history the country has fragmented into two or more warring kingdoms. In its early days there were many smaller independent states that were often at war with one another for domination, sometimes for several centuries. This was often followed by relatively short spells of unification under a single strong conqueror, followed again by a return to fragmentation. It was a long, slow climb towards the relatively unified state of the two millennia AD.

China's origins were long seen as being focussed along the Yellow River. Several of the early mythical or semi-historical dynasties were based in territory in this region, and these were regarded to have laid down the basis of later Chinese unity. However, archaeological discoveries in the past few decades have begun to shine a light on other cultures. These were located in regions that have been part of China for centuries but were initially seen as being outside the traditional Yellow River heartland of the earliest kingdoms. Discoveries of spectacular sacrificial pits in Sichuan, China's westernmost region, and Jiangxi, deep in the south, are connected with nearby city sites and have put a strain on the traditional view of Chinese cultural progression. In order to add these sites to the framework of Chinese history, archaeologists have begun to talk in terms of multiple sites of innovation that were all linked to Chinese civilisation. This has allowed Chinese archaeologists to break out of the constraints of working on areas within China's accepted cultural origins and instead search for multiple cultural origins in multiple regions.

Those cultures emerged at different times and in different places. Progression from Neolithic settlement to imperial dynasties was far from smooth and was also not consistently upwards and onwards. As mentioned, the Yellow River region played a vital role in shaping China, although it was not the sole birthplace of Chinese culture and invention. To gain a more complete overview of the emergence of these cultures and the part they may have played in the creation of a Chinese state, a separate, Early Cultures page covers them in detail.

The traditional view of the emergence of a single Chinese kingdom on a relatively narrow regional basis relied on the use of ancient Chinese chronicles. These recounted the lives and exploits of a succession of dynastic rulers that extended back to the start of the third millennium BC. However, the only surviving scrolls date from more than two thousand years later, so how much is fact and how much is reverent fiction may never be known. These early dynasties were drawn from a blending of small native tribes that developed and expanded until something approaching modern China (albeit much smaller in form) had been created. This dynastic interpretation of Chinese history has been used here as the basis for the main list, but the many regional kingdoms have also been added where appropriate, often as sideshoots of the main list with their own pages. Sub-kingdoms or regional kingdoms that are included here rather than on a page of their own are often shown with a shaded background to illustrate their separation from the dominant ruler(s) of contemporary China.

Chinese spelling as interpreted by the rest of the world has undergone many changes in the centuries since regular direct contacts were established with Europe. What was an acceptable interpretation in the seventeenth century of the name of a Chinese kingdom or ruler was often shown entirely differently in the twentieth century. Since then, further revision and fine-tuning has taken place ('Peking' to 'Beijing', for example), with the result that individual names often have several interpretations in records old and new. An attempt has been made here to use the latest forms of ancient names, but the process of picking out the most accurate version can be complicated, and fraught with possible error. It may be the case that no one form of a name in English is entirely satisfactory, and all of them may be open to future revision.

(Additional information from The Cambridge History of Ancient China - From the Origins of Civilization to 221 BC, Michael Loewe & Edward L Shaughnessy (1999).)

The Chinese Legendary Period (Neolithic)

FeatureThis legendary period precedes the general use of writing in China, although the origins of writing may go back very far indeed (see feature link, right). Also known as the 'Age of the Five Rulers' or emperors, and the 'Age of the Three Sovereigns', in the traditional Chinese chronology it is said to have lasted for 647 years. In linear terms it could be said to have followed many of the Chinese Early Cultures that combined to form the basis of what is now known as China, but may in fact have been little more than a regional kingdom with its own cultural expression. If any of these names represent once-living persons then they were likely local kings of some regional greatness who later achieved godhood through continued remembrance, but in the legendary sense they are used to show the 'creation' and progressive development of humanity in China. More than three sovereigns exist in the list, and more than five rulers, because not all sources agree on which names to include.

In broad terms the legendary period owes something of its existence to the Yangshao and Longshan cultures (it could certainly be ascribed to the later part of the Longshan in terms of its dating), and perhaps could also be described as a kind of proto-Erlitou period. It immediately precedes the Hsia dynasty (the traditional dynastic name for the Erlitou culture), which has long been seen as China's first legitimate dynasty, so for that reason it is included here as the starting point for the emergence of Chinese history. None of its rulers can be confirmed in any way whatsoever as being historical.

(Additional information from Chinese Mythology: An Introduction, Anne Birrell (1993), from The Chinese Heritage, K C Wu (1982), from from the works of Huangfu Mi (AD 215-282), Sima Zhen (AD 679-732), and Xu Zheng (third century AD), and from the Classic of Mountains and Seas text (also known as the Shan Hai Jing).)

Nǚwā

The first sovereign, a goddess-empress. Reigned 180,000 years.

Yǒucho

Sovereign god-emperor. Reigned 110,000 years.

c.3000 BC

The Longshan culture succeeds the Yangshao on the Yellow River. This is the culture and time span to which belongs the legendary period that is seen to form the start of a continuous chain of dynasties, a view that is being challenged by archaeology and historians.

Longshan culture
The Longshan cultural items shown here come from what is now known as Longshan Town, Jinan, in Shandong Province, which itself is around two thousand years old and is famed for its numerous relics

 

Surn

Sovereign emperor. Reigned 456,000 years.

Surn is perhaps the first name in the list of legendary emperors to be able to claim any semblance of reality. He is credited with the invention of drilling wood to create fire, a skill which is in fact known many thousands of years beforehand.

2850 - 2735 BC

Fxī/ Fu-hsi

Sovereign god-emperor.

2735 - 2697 BC

Shennong

Sovereign emperor. The 'Yn Emperor'.

2735 BC

The 'Yn Emperor' and Shennong are shown here as the same person. This is a subject that has long been debated, with many scholars considering them to be entirely separate figures, but it was largely settled by Chinese academics in 2004 in favour of there being a single figure. His homeland has been linked to the Sheep's Head Mountains in today's Shaanxi Province in northern-central China, just to the north of Baoji. The title 'yn' means 'flame', and K C Wu has put forward the idea that it was the title borne by a dynasty of rulers, with Shennong being the first. Shennong may even be the name of this particular tribe, the Shennong-shi. The 'flame emperors' may have ruled for a total of five hundred years, although this seems excessive.

Linkui

'Yn Emperor'.

Cheng

'Yn Emperor'.

Ming

'Yn Emperor'.

Zhi

'Yn Emperor'.

Li / Ke

'Yn Emperor'. Positioned either here, or after Ai.

Ai

'Yn Emperor'.

Yuwang

'Yn Emperor'. Defeated, and then in alliance with Huangdi.

Yuwang is defeated by Huangdi in the last of three battles, ending the dynasty of flame emperors and beginning the reign of the Yellow Emperor. Whilst the list of flame emperors, above, is the standard one offered by Chinese scholars and officials - Huangfu Mi (AD 215-282), Sima Zhen (AD 679-732), and Xu Zheng (flourished during the Eastern Wu period) - the Classic of Mountains and Seas text (also known as the Shan Hai Jing) has a completely different list, as follows: Yandi, Jiebing, Xiqi, Zhurong, Gonggong, Shuqi, Houtu (brother of Shuqi), Yeming (son of Houtu), and Suishi.

2697 - 2597 BC

Huangdi / Gongsun Xuanyuan

Sovereign emperor. The 'Yellow Emperor'.

2697 BC

The cult of Huangdi is a particularly strong one during the Warring States era, and again during the Early Han dynasty that follows it. Huangdi is portrayed as the creator of the centralised Chinese state, and the creator of several innovations that have probably already come about gradually during the course of China's early cultures. Sima Qian's Records of the Grand Historian begin with him, ignoring the earlier legendary rulers. Huangdi is to China's history what Woden of Angeln is to Anglo-Germanic history - almost every subsequent, historical king attempts to claim descent from him, but everything about him is hotly contested by historians.

Xia Emperor Huangdi
Something of an Adam or Abraham figure to the Chinese, following his defeat of Yan Emperor Yuwang, Huangdi supposedly created an alliance with him to repel an invasion by savage barbarians (foragers who had not yet accepted civilisation) and then effectively founded Chinese culture, becoming its father figure

 

2597 - 2501 BC

Jintian-shi / Shǎoho

Son. Ruler of the Dongyi. 1st century AD addition to the list?

Jintian-shi is ruler of the Dongyi, or Eastern Yi ('dong' means 'east' here). The use of 'yi' refers to people outside of the core group of Chinese micro-states, effectively labelling them as foreigners or barbarians. With the definition of what makes a Chinese state clearly changing over time, the use of 'yi' to describe outsiders is an adaptable one. In this period it refers to at least one group which is actually located in modern south-western China, at Qufu in Shandong Province which Jintian-shi makes his new capital.

2501 - 2423 BC

Gaoyang / Zhuānxū

Nephew. Ruler of the Shi.

Prior to becoming an emperor figure in his own right (at least in the terminology of later scholars), Gaoyang leads the Shi clan eastwards, with them migrating to Shandong where they settle alongside the Dongi tribe. The two groups are united through intermarriage and Gaoyang either succeeds Jintian-shi as their ruler at the age of twenty-four, or is chosen as the first leader of the newly combined tribe (as the inclusion of Jintian-shi in this list may be a first century AD addition).

2423 - 2353 BC

Gaoxin-shi / K

Grandson of Jintian-shi. The 'White Emperor'.

2353 - 2343 BC

Qingyang-shi / Zh

Son. Emperor. Deposed.

2343 - 2244 BC

Tangyao / Yo

Half-brother. Emperor. Abdicated in favour of Youyu.

2244 - 2194 BC

Youyu / Shn 'the Great'

Chosen heir. Emperor.

Before his death, Shn 'the Great' is recorded to have abdicated in favour of Yu. The word 'relinquished' is sometimes used in relation to the change in emperor, which may not always refer to a voluntary act, and the Bamboo Annals state that Yu in fact rebels against Shn and seizes the throne from him. Shn is banished and Yu establishes the Xia dynasty,

Early Cultures IndexHsia / Xia Dynasty / Erlitou Culture (Bronze Age)
c.2194 - 1766 BC

Yu the Great was the founder of the Xia or Hsia dynasty (pronounced syah), China's first historical dynasty (or at least semi-historical). However, no written records have survived from this early in Chinese history, presuming that the people of the Xia even had writing, which is highly debatable. The earliest known writing dates from the Shang dynasty, almost a millennium later, although this lack of written evidence does not preclude the existence of a powerful oral tradition that remembered one of China's key founder figures.

The Yellow River was both a boon to the tribes that lived along its banks and also a menace, because it could kill thousands when in full flood, and continued to do so right up to the modern age. According to tradition, Yu, grandson several times removed of the Yellow Emperor, managed to tame the river by building a great dam (with the help of a great dragon and a turtle), but it took him thirteen long years. Having returned home victorious, he earned the right to rule over the tribes along the river, and the Xia dynasty of emperors was born. The legend of Yu and his taming of the Yellow River was long thought by historians to be a myth - that is until a bronze bowl inscribed with the story was unearthed by archaeologists and was dated to around 1000 BC, proving that the story existed in China's Bronze Age. Perhaps his achievements meant that he could rule by replacing the previous ruler, because the Bamboo Annals state that Yu rebelled against Shn 'the Great', last of the Legendary Period's emperors, and seized the throne from him.

Yu's capital was probably at the Bronze Age site of Erlitou (pronounced earl-ee-taow), now a small village in Henan Province that lies a little way south of the ancient settlement. The Erlitou Culture emerged in Upper China as an immediate successor to the Longshan culture and was located in the 'Middle Plain' of the 'Middle Land', the latter being China itself. The Erlitou culture, formed during the Xia era's heyday, had origins that dated back to the preceding Longshan and Yangshao cultures. Its emergence had lasting repercussions for all of Chinese culture, laying down several important principles which were followed thereafter. The Xia remain largely a mystery, but at Erlitou archaeologists continue to find intriguing clues to their identity and the two seem to be tied together in history and archaeology.

For the moment, due to the lack of written evidence, selecting Erlitou as the capital of the Xia is still in doubt, as is the claim for the Xia forming China's first (historical or semi-historical) dynasty. All that has survived is oral tradition and a good deal of archaeology. It certainly does seem to have been an important dynasty, however, and sixteen emperors succeeded Yu before its end around 1766 BC.

An interesting discovery from the more recent post-communist era archaeology in China is the realisation that much of the nation's Bronze Age technology came from regions outside China. Bronze that arrived in China originated in the Babylonia-dominated Middle East or ancient Egypt. Some of the wilder theories have put this down to an epic migration from Egypt to China, seemingly during the Hyksos period when long-distance seaborne travel was a definite possibility, although the distances involved in this case may have been far too great. A more prosaic consensus is that bronze was transmitted into China from Central Asia by a slow process of cultural exchange (trade, tribute, dowry) across the northern frontier, mediated by Eurasian steppe pastoralists who had contacts with indigenous groups in both regions. However, intriguingly, Sima Qian in his first century historiography, the Records of the Grand Historian, wrote in his description of the topography of the Xia empire, 'northwards the stream is divided and becomes the nine rivers. Reunited, it forms the opposing river and flows into the sea'. This was not a description of the Yellow River, which runs from east to west. The world's only great river to flow south to north is the Nile, with the 'nine rivers' being the Nile delta where it meets the Mediterranean. So far, no conclusive explanation has been provided for this.

(Additional information by Edward Dawson, and from the BBC series, The Story of China, by Michael Wood, first broadcast between 21 January and 25 February 2016, from A Companion to Chinese Archaeology, Anne P Underhill (Ed, 2013), from A Cultural History of the Chinese Language, Sharron Gu, and from External Links: Catalogue of Long Hybrid Solar Eclipses: -3999 to 6000 (Nasa), and Does Chinese Civilization Come From Ancient Egypt?)

2194 - 2149 BC

Yǔ / Yu the Great

Descendant of the Legendary Period's Yellow Emperor.

c.2000 BC

Just north of the River Luo at Erlitou, archaeologists are still working on a site that has yielded great finds that date from this period onwards, to around 1500 BC. The finds include pillared halls, palaces that could be dated between 2000-1500 BC. These palaces stand on rammed-earth platforms, one of them with a triple gate that provides the pattern for all later Chinese royal cities. Pottery and bronze casting are found here, as is a burial with an exquisite sceptre made of two thousand pieces of turquoise in the shape of a dragon, the symbol of Chinese royalty since the beginning of civilisation here (similarly, the later post-Roman Britons also revere the dragon as a symbol of leadership or royalty).

Map of Xia China c.2000 BC
The semi-mythical first dynasty of China emerged in territory along the Yellow River, quickly conquering and dominating the rival early states around it, especially the Shang tribe who would later pose such a threat to Xia hegemony, but also others such as the largely mysterious Pi, and Ge (click on map to show full sized)

 

2149 - ? BC

Son. Ruled 10, 16, or 29 years.

? - 2099 BC

Kāng / Ti Kāng

Son. Reignal name shown second. Reigned 19 years.

2099 - ? BC

Kāng / Zhng Kāng

Brother.

2094 BC

The earliest recorded eclipse (at least, recorded by oral tradition and written down a thousand years later) is noted in the Book of Documents (the Shujing, earlier known as the Shu King). In the fifth year of the reign of Zhong Kang (usually shown without the letter accents) two royal astronomers, Hsi and Ho, fail in their duties to predict the eclipse and are executed by order of the king. The usual date given for Zhong Kang's accession is 2088 BC, which would make the year of the solar eclipse 2083 BC. However, the nearest solar eclipse of any type that can be found is at 2094 BC, for a hybrid eclipse on 5 January. The actual figure given is 2093 BC, but this is an astronomical date which does not take into account the non-existence of a year zero, so one year must be added on. Therefore Zhong Kang's reign must begin in 2099 BC.

Xiāng

Son. Assassinated.

Xiāng is murdered by Jiao, the son of the warlord, Han Zhuo. The father had already conquered Ge, and six years later he now empties the Xia throne. There follows an interregnum of around forty years while Xiāng's wife raises their infant son to adulthood and he is able to reclaim his father's throne from Han Zhuo. Ge is retaken, Jiao is killed, and Han Zhuo is executed.

Han Zhou

Usurper warlord who seized the throne. Executed.

Kāng / Sho Kāng

Son of Xiāng. Restored the Xia throne.

One of Sho Kāng's sons, Wuyi, is credited with bringing civilisation to the Yue on the East China Sea coast of China, at Zhejiang (formerly Chekiang). Otherwise known as Yuyue, the Yue state flourishes during the first millennium BC, most especially during the Middle Zhou period and the Warring States era. Through their connection via Wuyi, Yue's rulers later claim descent from Emperor Yu.

Yellow River
One of the world's most powerful rivers, and one that is subject to tremendous changes in flow rate, the Yellow River has provided the setting for some of China's most important early cultures

 

Zh

Son.

During the thirteenth year of Zh's reign his vassal, Ming of the Shang tribe, dies. The Shang occupy the lower regions of the Yellow River, to the immediate north-east of the Xia dynasty's domains. This makes them potentially dangerous if they ever think of rising up against the Xia - which of course they do around 1766 BC.

Hui

Son. Ruled 26 or 44 years.

Mng

Son. Ruled 18 years?

Xi

Son. Ruled 25 years?

Bu Jing

Son. Ruled 59 years. Abdicated. Died 10 years later.

During the sixth year of his reign, according to the Bamboo Annals, Bu Jing fights the Mongols of Jiuyuan (now part of Inner Mongolia). In the thirty-fifth year of his reign his subject, the Shang, defeat the state of Pi (otherwise known as Xue, located in southern Shandong Province). The state had been created by Xi Zhong, Yu's minister of chariots, but details regarding it seem to have been lost to history. The state resurfaces during the subsequent Shang period. At the end of his reign Bu Jing abdicates the throne in favour of his brother.

Bu Jiōng

Brother. Ruled for 18 or 21 years?

Jǐn / Yn Jiǎ

Son. Ruled for 21 years?

? / Kǒng Jiǎ

Son of Bu Jing. Personal name unknown. Ruled 31 years?

Dedicated to his personal pleasures rather than the good governance of the kingdom, Kǒng Jiǎ's reign sees the beginning of a decline in Xia power and influence. The vassal states begin to assert greater levels of independence.

Bamboo Annals
The Bamboo Annals were written down largely during the Warring States era of the fifth to third centuries BC, using slips of bamboo that are now causing the experts a few headaches when it comes to finding ways of preserving them

 

Gāo

Son. Ruled 11 years?

Houjin / Fā

Son.

? - 1766 BC

Lǚ Guǐ / Ji

Son. A tyrant. Overthrown by the Shang.

c.1766 BC

Ji is a tyrant who, in common with at least one recent ruler, is intent on securing his own pleasures above his duty to govern the kingdom. During this time the Shang state is increasing its own power by dominating other Xia vassal states, one by one, including the state of Wen. The Shang ruler, Tang, eventually convinces the other vassal states to join him in overthrowing the Xia and its corrupt leader. Ji's last solid ally, Kunwu, is defeated and the attack on the Xia themselves finally comes at the Battle of Mingtiao. Ji flees the defeat and is soon captured and allowed to live, only later to die of illness.

China's dynasties continues here.